Real Leaders

5 Social Impact Lessons from the Front Lines

As he watched the devastating fires in Australia destroy nearly 7,000 square miles of countryside and 3,000 homes last year, Terry Tamminen (above, right) thought of canaries that miners carried into coal mines to determine if carbon monoxide had collected in mine shafts.

“Australia was a microcosm, and these fires are a warning that we should pay attention to,” says Tamminen. “Here’s a developed nation with lots of resources, and the whole country is literally on fire. The climate science tells us that this will be our future if we don’t change quickly.”

Tamminen has spent a career making change happen quickly and for the better — whether as secretary of the California EPA under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, or co-founder of leading environmental NGO Seventh Generation Advisors. Here are five lessons learned from three decades of making a positive impact on the planet.

01 Learn And Adapt

Australia’s infernos give business and government leaders in other countries an opportunity to anticipate how climate change will impact their communities. “Businesses need to be thinking both about mitigation and adaptation, and policymakers need to be thinking about how to be a part of the solution of the climate emergency instead of standing in the way of progress,” he says.

02 Stay Positive

Tamminen recalled working with Leonardo DiCaprio on a formal address to the U.N. Climate Summit. They wanted to write a speech that described problems and solutions to the climate crisis, “but we kept listing the problems and looking at the science, and we found ourselves almost in tears trying to write the speech,” he says. “It’s hard to stay positive, but in the end, we wrote a persuasive speech that called for bold, unprecedented action.”

03 Share Best Practices

As head of the California EPA, Tamminen ushered in impactful policies, including the Million Solar Roofs initiative and California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which emphasized economic development opportunities around clean/efficient energy and waste reduction. “We proved that a strong environment and a strong economy are two sides of the same coin,” he says. 

04 Amplify Change

Through his work with global celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jane Goodall, and Barak Obama, Tamminen has helped amplify issues and success stories to inspire change. With climate change, “We need clear voices and people we can trust, and we tend to trust celebrities,” he says. “It’s important to harness celebrity to get the message out, to normalize it, and make people realize that their actions matter and that they can be part of the solution.”

05 Think Generations Ahead

Tamminen founded 7th Generations Advisors based on the ancient First Nations philosophy that decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world for future generations. That same philosophy needs to guide actions as society confronts climate change. As individuals and as a society, “We need to be thinking generations ahead and act with urgency,” he says. 

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